I love reading the little book of Philippians. The deep love in Paul’s heart for the church he planted there and his desire to encourage and strengthen them permeates the epistle. The letter contains some of the most incredibly uplifting, encouraging, and joyful words ever penned, and they would be treasured in any context. But realizing that he wrote them while confined in a Roman prison takes our astonishment to a whole new level.
It’s easy to read the Bible and bypass the real-life circumstances and situations that the people involved had to endure. Life was hard for virtually everyone in that era. Unless you were a part of the aristocracy with servants or slaves to cater to your whims and desires, every day brought chores and challenges that most of us would never want to deal with.
A Dose of Reality ~
We’re so spoiled by our conveniences that people can feel traumatized if the wi-fi shuts down or a storm knocks out our electricity for a few days – or even a few hours. And if a cell phone goes missing or gets inadvertently dropped in the toilet, panic attacks can ensue and therapeutic interventions may be needed. Imagine how most of us would feel if we were transported back to Israel 2,000 years ago. Even at its middle class best back then, there would still be no electricity and thus, none of the things it makes possible. So, we’d have no hot showers, microwave ovens, refrigerators, stoves, light bulbs, etc. Add to that, no decent soap, no toothbrushes, no deodorant, and when it comes to toilet facilities, well… let’s just say that they fell pretty short of “5-Star” quality.
But the challenges of normal life at its worst would have felt like paradise compared to confinement in a Roman prison – a place where Paul found himself again and again. In every one of them, varying degrees of deprivation, pain, and misery were the rule of the day – every day. Yet imprisonment was only one of the trials Paul had to endure. He unloaded a synopsis of them in his letter to the Corinthians, and though it’s a bit lengthy, I felt compelled to include it along with this admonition. Engage your imagination and try to read it visually. Picture the events happening to a person who is just as real, just as human, and just as vulnerable as you and I. Remember that Paul was living at a time when there was no Advil, no Neosporin, no antiseptic bandages, no emergency rooms, and not even a drug store with a “minute clinic.” Here’s a glimpse of what Paul’s life was like:
…in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in [the threat of] deaths often. 24 From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness—28 besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23–28 NKJV)
A Key to Incredible Courage ~
It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to endure any one of those circumstances, much less all of them. Paul faced deprivation, rejection, persecution, deception, injustice, mental and emotional abuse, and physical torture – and persevered. But he didn’t survive and overcome because he fought with all his might to stay alive. He overcame it all because he had died at the feet of Jesus already, and corpses are hard to intimidate. As he said so clearly,
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 NKJV)
That image, that reality for Paul, brings to mind a scene enacted many times over on TV medical shows. A patient is lying on an operating table and people are hovering over him or her working feverishly. Electronic monitors are beeping as bloody hands work inside the patient. Then, suddenly the heart monitor’s little green line goes flat. Action intensifies for a few more minutes as they desperately try to resuscitate the lifeless body, but eventually the doctor in charge says, “That’s it. I’m calling it.” Death is declared the victor and at that point, everything changes. Hands and arms relax, instruments are laid down, and all attempts to fix the diseased, broken, or defective body on the table are abandoned.
No More Decisions ~
After all that happens, I’ve noticed that the patient is pretty much ignored. Nobody asks about their comfort or what their future plans might be. Of course they don’t. Corpses don’t get to decide where they go or what happens to them. When death claims a human body, everything about it becomes someone else’s responsibility. That reality has tremendous significance in regard to Paul’s life and his journey with Jesus.
It began when he was known only as Saul of Tarsus. Saul was a religious zealot fanatically devoted to keeping every command in the Torah as a means of overcoming sin and securing God’s acceptance. Yet all the while, selfishness, pride, arrogance, religious bigotry, and rage were eating him alive. Not only was the Law powerless to fix any of that, applying it only made the condition worse.
A Turning Point ~
On Saul’s way to export Jerusalem’s religious terrorism to Damascus, Jesus showed up, knocked him to the ground, and exposed his utter failure to accomplish what he was really after. Jesus basically said, “This isn’t working for you, is it, Saul?” With his arrogance disarmed and his pride deflated, Saul lay defeated and helpless at the feet of the resurrected Christ with no fight left in him. That was the condition God needed in order to declare, “That’s it, I’m calling it.”
Saul’s attempts to earn life by the strength of his own zealous determination totally expired in the presence of God that day, and his autonomy died with them. Jesus claimed exclusive ownership and authority as He breathed new life into the spiritual corpse lying before him and the man who came to be known as Paul, the Apostle was born.
Walking Corpses – Powerful Agents of Change ~
From that moment on, in Paul’s mind, he was a walking corpse animated, guided, and directed by the One whose Spirit had come to live in him. No wonder efforts to control him through deprivation, intimidation, and threats of execution didn’t work. Corpses are impervious to such things. That enables them to be incredibly powerful agents of change in a world that can neither understand, intimidate, nor subdue them.
We’re surrounded by a culture becoming increasingly oppositional to Biblical values and principles and to the teachings of Jesus Christ. None of us knows what challenges we might face in the journey ahead or what courage might be required of us, but we know this. Overcoming power begins when we fall at Jesus’ feet and admit that living life by our rules isn’t working and can never get us what we really want. That’s when God steps in to say, “I’m calling it.” All human effort to overcome the forces of sin and death are abandoned and hope is transferred to Jesus. Then He breathes His Spirit into us and a new life is born. From that point on, Jesus has charge over all that we do. Our life belongs to Him and our present and eternal welfare becomes His responsibility.
In a world overrun by anarchy and manipulated by fear, imagine what might happen if we had an army of Spirit-animated corpses like Paul… people who are dead to self, but alive in Christ–guided, protected, and preserved by Him. There’s transformational power in those that the world can neither understand, intimidate, nor subdue. That’s the kind of Jesus follower I want to be. How about you?
“TWEETABLES” ~ Click to tweet and share from the pull quotes below. Each one links directly back to this article through Twitter . . .
- “Jesus claimed exclusive ownership and authority as He breathed new life into the spiritual corpse lying before him, and the man who would come to be known as Paul the Apostle was born.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “In Paul’s mind, he was a walking corpse animated, guided, and directed by the One whose Spirit had come to live in him. No wonder efforts to control him through deprivation, intimidation, and threats of execution didn’t work.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “Overcoming power begins when we fall at Jesus’ feet, and admit that living life by our rules isn’t working and can never get us what we really want. That’s when God steps in to say, “I’m calling it,” and hope is transferred to Jesus.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “In a world overrun by anarchy and manipulated by fear, imagine what might happen if we had an army of Spirit-animated corpses like Paul… people who are dead to self, but alive in Christ – transformed, guided, protected and preserved by Him.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
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